6 May 2013
For Eisenhower, who had witnessed the carnage of the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and later claimed to “hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” political assassinations represented an alluring alternative to conventional military action. Through the execution or overthrow of undesirable foreign leaders, the thinking went, it might be possible to orchestrate the global struggle against Communism from a distance, and avoid the misery—and the risks of nuclear war—that out-and-out combat would bring. Assassination was seen not only as precise and efficient but also as ultimately humane. Putting such theory into practice was the role of the C.I.A., and the agency’s tally of toppled leftists, nationalists, or otherwise unreliable leaders is well known, from Mohammad Mosadegh, of Iran, in 1953, and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, of Guatemala, in 1954, to Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam, in 1963, and Salvador Allende, of Chile, in 1973. Not all the schemes went according to plan; a few seemed inspired by Wile E. Coyote. The C.I.A. once planned to bump off Fidel Castro by passing him an exploding cigar.
Aside from the moral ugliness of violent covert action, its record as a national-security strategy isn’t encouraging. On occasion, interventions have delivered short-term advantages to Washington, but in the long run they have usually sown deeper troubles. Lumumba’s successor, the dictator Joseph Mobutu, may have been an ally of the United States until his death, in 1997, but his brutal rule prepared the way for Congo’s recent descent into chaos. Memory of the C.I.A.’s hand in Mosadegh’s overthrow stoked the anti-American fury of the Iranian Revolution, which confounds the United States to this day. Foreign policy is not a game of Risk. Great nations achieve lasting influence and security not by bloody gambits but through economic growth, scientific innovation, military deterrence, and the power of ideas.
During the nineteen-seventies, it seemed as though this era of covert action were coming to an end. After a congressional investigation exposed the extent of C.I.A. plots, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning political assassinations. Successive Presidents strengthened the ban with executive orders of their own, codifying a growing bipartisan consensus that assassinations undercut America’s avowed commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
But after September 11, 2001, as lower Manhattan and the Pentagon smoldered, C.I.A. leaders advocated for the right to kill members of Al Qaeda anywhere in the world. George W. Bush eagerly assented. On September 17th, the President signed a still classified directive delegating lethal authority to the agency. “The gloves come off,” J. Cofer Black, the director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, told Congress early in 2002.
Since then, America’s targeted-killing program has grown into a campaign without borders, in which the White House, the C.I.A., and the Pentagon all play a part. The role of armed drones in this war is well known, but for years neither President Obama nor his advisers officially acknowledged their existence. Some three thousand people, including an unknown number of civilians, are believed to have died in targeted strikes since 2001. If the death tolls from strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan were included, the figure would be much higher.
An assassination campaign against suspected terrorists is not the same as one that occasionally rubs out unfriendly political leaders of nation-states, but it raises similar questions. Is a program of targeted killing, conducted without judicial oversight or public scrutiny, consistent with American interests and values?
The return of Presidentially sanctioned assassinations is described in two new books of investigative journalism, “The Way of the Knife” (Penguin), by Mark Mazzetti, a Times reporter; and “Dirty Wars” (Nation), by Jeremy Scahill, of The Nation. In the wake of September 11th, the C.I.A. launched what now seems a comparatively selective effort to capture or kill “high-value targets” associated with Al Qaeda. President Bush kept a list of two dozen senior terrorists in the Oval Office and reportedly crossed out their photographs when they were eliminated or imprisoned.
The Iraq War lifted targeted killing to an industrial scale. Frustrated by the lead role taken by the C.I.A., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged the Pentagon’s clandestine forces, under the Joint Special Operations Command, to add terrorist hunting to their specialties. As one insurgent group after another sprang up to resist the American occupation of Iraq, JSOC was given an opportunity to prove itself.
Between 2003 and 2008, Special Operations forces in Iraq, under the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal, perfected a system of intelligence collection, detention, and targeted killing. In blistering night raids, McChrystal’s men would descend upon the homes of suspected insurgents, kill or capture them, and then comb their phones and e-mails for intelligence, which was used to identify fresh targets for attack. This program has been described by other journalists, and aspects of it were depicted in the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Scahill adds a thorough and unsentimental accounting of JSOC’s brutal work in Iraq, including a review of the available evidence that prisoners interrogated at its facilities near Baghdad were tortured.
As the sharp end of a counter-insurgency strategy, McChrystal’s approach resembled the C.I.A.’s Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, when the United States tried, and failed, to suppress the Vietcong by detaining and assassinating thousands of suspected militants and cadre leaders. Yet the tactics and assumptions that McChrystal developed were not confined to Iraq’s declared battlefield. Increasingly, the C.I.A. and JSOC came to see their campaign against Al Qaeda as a worldwide counter-insurgency. They believed, as Scahill’s subtitle aptly suggests, that “the world is a battlefield.” Before long, they had constructed a Phoenix program with global reach.
After 2006, as the Taliban regrouped, McChrystal brought his system of intelligence collection and targeted killing to bear in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban’s top leaders were hiding out in Pakistani cities such as Quetta and Karachi, McChrystal was able to launch successful strikes against mid-level commanders. Then, in 2009, President Obama ordered tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, and asked McChrystal to command all American and international forces. The appointment was a signal to the C.I.A. and the Pentagon that assassination would be a critical, if often undeclared, element in the effort to suppress the Taliban.
The influx of international forces inflamed Taliban fighters, who had important bases in the tribal border areas of Pakistan. At the urging of his advisers, Obama escalated clandestine drone strikes inside Pakistan in an attempt to disrupt these safe havens. President Bush, worried about destabilizing the country’s already weak government, had avoided this escalation until very late in his Presidency. Bush oversaw forty-eight drone strikes in Pakistan during his two terms. Since 2009, Obama has authorized more than three hundred. In Mazzetti’s telling, C.I.A. leaders repeatedly pushed Obama for more expansive authority to use armed drones. They got their way in almost every instance.
“The Way of the Knife” (the title comes from a national-security adviser’s remark that the United States needed to fight terrorism with “a scalpel not a hammer”) offers the brisk pace, inside-the-White House scenes, and opaque sourcing of a Bob Woodward procedural. In one Situation Room meeting early in Obama’s first term, General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said to have asked why the United States was “building a second Air Force” in the form of the C.I.A.’s swelling armed-drone fleet. Mazzetti quotes Obama’s reply: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.” By 2010, according to Mazzetti, Obama’s own Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, “wondered whether the pace of the drone war might be undercutting relations with an important ally for the quick fix of killing midlevel terrorists.” Munter soon discovered that, under President Obama, “it was what the C.I.A. believed that really counted.”
This past March, Rand Paul, the Tea Party-backed Republican senator from Kentucky, filibustered President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan, an agency stalwart, as director of the C.I.A. During his thirteen-hour stand, Paul drew attention to an often overlooked fact: that, of the thousands killed by drone strikes in countries where the United States has never officially declared war—Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, and possibly others—at least four were American citizens. Three of these were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. About the fourth, there had been no mistake: Anwar Awlaki, who was killed by a drone in northern Yemen on September 30, 2011.
Both Mazzetti and Scahill treat the case as a touchstone. Scahill weaves into his larger narrative the most detailed biography of Anwar Awlaki yet published. It is a riveting account. Awlaki, who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1971, was certainly the most enigmatic radical the C.I.A. has killed since its operatives helped Bolivian forces finish off Che Guevara, in 1967.
Awlaki preached for nearly a decade at mosques in San Diego and northern Virginia. After the September 11th attacks, he initially condemned the hijackers. Later, he returned to Yemen to live with his extended family, was imprisoned, and, outraged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke in favor of suicide bombing. A 2009 shooting rampage by a U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, who had corresponded with Awlaki, and the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day that year by a Nigerian youth, who had trained in Yemen among jihadists linked to Awlaki, seemed to connect Awlaki’s hate speech with specific acts of terrorism. Awlaki’s e-mail exchanges with Hasan do not indicate that he was aware of the Major’s plans, but after the shootings he called Hasan “a hero” and “a man of conscience.” Around this time, the Justice Department composed a memo in which it argued that President Obama had the right to kill Awlaki.
The document has never been published, but it reportedly contains intelligence that Awlaki had gone operational in Yemen, and had been involved in multiple plots to kill Americans. The Obama Administration’s position, explicated mainly through anonymous leaks to journalists, is that, because this secret information showed that Awlaki had betrayed the United States and had become a leader in an enemy force, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Justice Department memo was enough to justify his assassination.
The Fifth Amendment asserts that no “person” shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” a statement that the Supreme Court has usually interpreted as requiring, among other things, that American citizens receive a fair trial and the right of appeal. The Obama Administration has never made clear why it thought that capturing Awlaki and bringing him to trial was infeasible. Nor has it described the specific standards it used to approve Awlaki’s execution. As things stand, Obama will bequeath to his successors a worrisome precedent: without trial, the President has the right to kill any U.S. citizen who is judged, on the basis of unpublished criteria, to have become an enemy combatant.
But Awlaki’s case, troubling as it may be, raises a broader issue: the Administration’s refusal to disclose the criteria by which it condemns anyone, American or otherwise, to death. The information used in such cases is intelligence data rather than evidence; it is not subject to cross-examination or judicial review. Unanswered questions abound. Does the President require that intelligence used to convict a terror suspect in absentia be based on multiple sources, or is one sufficient? Must intercepts, photographs, or credible firsthand testimony be obtained, or can people be executed on the basis of hearsay from paid informants? How directly involved in violence must an individual be to receive a death sentence? At what point does a preacher’s hate speech warrant his being killed?
Mazzetti describes how the imperative to protect American troops in Afghanistan from cross-border attacks originating in Pakistan led to a slackening of the standards used to mark terror suspects for assassination. After 2008, the C.I.A. won approval for a category of drone attacks known as “signature strikes,” in which, even without a specific target, an attack is justified by a pattern of behavior—young men of military age test-firing mortars at a training camp in South Waziristan, say, or riding under arms in a truck toward the Afghan border.
Under the laws of war, strikes of that kind are typically legal on a formal battlefield like that in Afghanistan—in war, if an enemy camp is discovered, it is not necessary to know the names of the fighters inside in order to attack. In secret, Obama unilaterally extended such permission to Pakistan’s border region, where the United States had never declared war. The President put the C.I.A., not the Pentagon, in charge of these attacks, in order to maintain deniability.
Without judicial review or informed public debate, the potential for abuse and overreach is vast. In one of the most disquieting passages in his book, Mazzetti notes that, as the death toll in Pakistan mounted, Obama Administration officials at one point claimed that the increased drone strikes in Pakistan had not led to any civilian deaths. “It was something of a trick of logic,” Mazzetti writes. “In an area of known militant activity, all military-age males were considered to be enemy fighters. Therefore, anyone who was killed in a drone strike there was categorized as a combatant.”
For years, both Israel’s security establishment and its public regarded targeted killing as an essential tool of counterterrorism policy. The recent film “The Gatekeepers,” which draws on interviews with past directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal-security service, shows how intelligence leaders gradually acquired a sadder and wiser outlook. In the film, several former Shin Bet leaders argue forcefully that terrorism is ultimately a political problem that cannot be resolved by endless campaigns of assassination.
In contrast, within the C.I.A., Mazzetti writes, “many believe that the drone program is the most effective covert-action program” in the agency’s sixty-six-year history. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the Obama Administration was preparing a “next-generation” list of terrorist suspects who would be captured or killed according to a new “disposition matrix.” The Post added that Obama’s advisers, including the C.I.A. director, John Brennan, believe that targeted killing will be required to contain Al Qaeda-related terrorism for at least another decade.
Obama’s enthusiasm for drones—which he believes minimizes the risk to American forces and non-combatants on the ground—is unnervingly reminiscent of Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for poisoning schemes and coup plots. (The President’s foreign-policy advisers periodically cite Eisenhower as an inspiration.) Drone strikes are also defended on the ground that they have killed terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen before those terrorists could kill Americans in Times Square or on the Mall, in Washington. There is no way to assess these claims: the official secrecy surrounding the program makes it impossible to judge the results.
Drone strikes have surely thinned Al Qaeda’s ranks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and reduced pressure on American forces fighting the Taliban. But has the program made America safer? Political relations between the United States and Pakistan, a nation of nearly a hundred and eighty million people, with a fast-growing nuclear arsenal, have collapsed. Today, the United States has surpassed India as the most hated nation in Pakistan. There are many causes, but drones are a major one. Just as Eisenhower failed to think through the consequences of his push-button interventionism, Obama seems unwilling to confront the possibility that drone strikes may be creating more enemies than they’re eliminating.
It is also far from clear that killing leaders is even a reliable means of disrupting terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Jenna Jordan, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Aaron Mannes, of the University of Maryland, have separately reviewed dozens of past campaigns by governments to destroy terrorist organizations and found that culling leaders works in some instances—especially when terrorist groups are young and small—but not in others. The approach is particularly ineffective against religious organizations, which tend to regroup and escalate violence in response to such efforts. Besides, as the Boston Marathon bombing reminded us, terrorist plots can be hatched and carried out by individuals acting independently of any chain of command.
America’s drone campaign is also creating an ominous global precedent. Ten years or less from now, China will likely be able to field armed drones. How might its Politburo apply Obama’s doctrines to Tibetan activists holding meetings in Nepal?
Mazzetti closes his narrative with an interview with Richard Blee, a retired C.I.A. operations officer who worked aggressively against Al Qaeda at the Counterterrorist Center before and after September 11th, and who, like the Shin Bet directors in “The Gatekeepers,” has since developed doubts about tactics he once embraced. “In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger,” Blee told the author. He continued:
That reckoning still seems a long way off.